Lahore Diary by Ramachandra Guha (published by Outlook)
A Frontier Malgudi
The day before I was due to depart for Lahore, a publisher friend sent me a story by a writer she referred to as “a sort of Pakistani R.K. Narayan”. I read it on the flight, and found that for once a publisher had sold an author short. Through the character of an ordinary electrician, Daniyal Mueenuddin had uncovered the violence and callousness of everyday life in rural west Punjab of Pakistan. True, the elegance of the prose matched that of the Mysore master. But the world was more brutal, and hence more credible. However, the world I was about to enter was altogether more civil and genteel. Lahore is Pakistan’s most cultured city. In three intense days, I met a cross-section of Pakistan’s thinking classes—journalists, activists, lawyers and economists. Naturally, our talk was dominated by the tensions then prevailing. I sensed, among these sensitive and hospitable people, a triple fear: the fear of their city being overrun by Taliban-style fundamentalists; the fear of their government being taken over once more by the military; the fear that after the recent terror attacks, their country would be shunned and scorned by India, and the world.
The Indulgent Polemicist
The pretext for my Lahore trip was to record a conversation with the Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal. Professor Jalal is widely admired for the brilliance of her mind, but also feared for the sharpness of her tongue. When, long before the Mumbai attacks, I told a younger Indian scholar why I was going to Lahore in January, she told me: “Make sure you write your will before you go.” (The scholar, who like Professor Jalal lives in the United States, had recently seen her in operation in an academic seminar.) But except for one sharp exchange on who or what caused Partition, our conversation was mostly non-polemical. It may be that Professor Jalal has mellowed with age. More likely, she viewed me with indulgence because I share her love for the game of cricket.
Anxiety Of Isolation
I had been to Pakistan twice before, in 1989 and 1995. Both times I had found the aam admi very hospitable. This time they were even more so. On my flight, there were only 18 passengers; these included two Indian mediapersons, and a member of the Hurriyat Conference. The airline staff fell over themselves to attend on me; so did the hotel staff. In a place with some eighty rooms there were three or four guests at the breakfast table; I was the only Indian. When the time came for me to depart, I found the employees of the hotel had all lined up in a sort of guard of honour. The manager asked me to come again, and to bring my friends along next time. I was touched by this display of sentiment, but also somewhat embarrassed. So I asked them in return to come to India. One person answered that he had indeed visited my homeland. When I enquired whether it was to see relatives, he answered: “Rishtedaar nahin, dost se milne aya tha.” Then he added: “Sardar family hai.” I was both moved and saddened. That the young man found it necessary to specify that he had come to India not to meet relatives bespoke of a certain insecurity. He probably knew, vaguely, that his own city, Lahore, had once been a great seat of Sikh culture and Hindu learning. He certainly knew that many Indians thought of his country as led and directed by mad mullahs. Hence the emphasis on the fact that among his own friends was an Indian who was not Muslim.
Harvest After Ploughing
The hotel staffer who had befriended Sikhs was in his late twenties; as, indeed, was my guide on a day trip through Lahore. This was Ali Sethi, whose novel The Wish Maker is due for release in very many countries this summer. I cannot think of where, when, or if I have met a more impressive young man. His Urdu and Punjabi are as fluent as his English. He knows most streets and many of the stones in his native city. He has an equal interest in art as in literature, and a deeper one in music (he sings beautifully, and is learning classical vocal with a Karachi-based ustad.) If the book is anything like the man, it shall be very good indeed. Pakistan may or may not be a failed state; but it is unquestionably a society in deep crisis. And like other such, it has produced great literature. The brutalities of Tsarist Russia gave us Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; the corruptions of Latin America gave us Marquez and Paz; the terror of Stalin and Stalinism gave us Kundera, Havel, and Solzhenitsyn. The generals and bigots of Pakistan have already given us Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif; now we have Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ali Sethi. There will be more to come.